The original Borderlands was a pretty unique concept brought to market by developer Gearbox, a loot loaded RPG with shooter gameplay wrapped in a cartoonish presentation. Borderlands sold well and received fantastic support through DLC, but the formula clearly had room for improvement. Fast forward to 2012 and few games this year have garnered as much hype and interest as Borderlands 2, but now that its been released does the finished product validate all those high expectations? Hell yes it does!
Right at the start of Borderlands 2 you’re thrown back onto the harsh world of Pandora, but there have been some changes since our last visit. First of all the game features 4 brand new characters in the starring role: the badass gunzerker Salvador, powerful siren Maya, stalwart grunt Axton and the stealthy Zer0. All of these new characters bring their own strengths to the battlefield and, if new antagonist Handsome Jack has anything to say, they’re going to need every ability they can muster to survive.
You see ever since the original Borderlands protagonists managed to open the vault, Pandora has been sprouting deposits of an incredibly rare material known as eridium. By harvesting these deposits Handsome Jack has risen to the head of the Hyperion Corporation and has effectively taken complete control of Pandora. Jack’s goal is to open a newly discovered vault while luring vault hunters to Pandora and killing them off in order to protect his self-appointed claim to the vault and its contents. The main story path will have you fighting back against Jack and Hyperion, and you’ll often be doing it alongside the original cast of protagonists turned NPC. It’s in the main story itself that you’ll probably find the greatest improvements from the original, with a much improved narrative, better characters and even more of the blood drenched hilarity that people now expect from the series. I really can’t overstate how much better this story is than the original and, while I wont spoil it, Borderlands 2 contains one of the most conflicting and heart wrenching moments I’ve experienced in a game for years.
Sound design is especially solid and I have to salute the team at Gearbox for their excellent work. The music (both the licensed and original score) is perfectly implemented and never intrusive nor absent, always seeming to kick on right when the action or story calls for it. Dialogue is funny, well acted and varied, with every bandit seemingly having something hilarious or disturbing to say. Pistols, assault rifles, LMGs, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, rocket launchers and plasma weapons all roar with unique sound effects. Heck, even the various monsters of Pandora have their own audio identity and sound cues that really bring out their personalities. Special mention has to go to actor Dameon Clarke for his role as Handsome Jack, a character who gets my vote for one of the best villains of this entire gaming generation.
For better or worse the gameplay hasn’t seen many changes, but there are several small improvements. The controls feel more fluid and precise than the original and you’ll no longer have to stop and pick up every single piece of ammo and money now that your character automatically hoovers them into your inventory. As advertised the 50 bazillion kajillion guns do seem more varied and interesting than ever before and, save for specific bossses that drop the same special loot weapons, I never encountered a duplicate item in my 40+ hours.
Co-op returns to Borderlands 2 and functions just about the same as it did in the original, save perhaps for some improved stability and an easier time getting together with your friends. While there were minor instances of latency here or there, the co-op ran well and definitely added a lot of enjoyment to the already silly side missions and character dialogue as we joked around over the solid in-game voice communication. Friends can even join your game outright without an invitation depending on the settings you’ve decided to implement. One not so great aspect of co-op though is that everyone in the group shares the same loot, so one bad egg can easily rush ahead and snatch up everything that just dropped from the boss and there isn’t a thing you can do about it. I really wish Gearbox had separated the loot somehow, or at least put in a system where you could challenge a partners right to those items. As it is though I highly suggest you play with friends whenever possible.
Another wasted opportunity is the mechanic of gathering eridium, the precious material I mentioned previously. Essentially, as you go around killing and looting your way through the entire population of Pandora you’ll occasionally find some random drops of eridium. Sadly, the only thing you really use it for is to increase ammo and inventory space, and that’s just about it. For all the hub-bub over eridium in the main story and its mysterious powers, I really expected to be able to use it for more than just unlocking extra bank spaces that could easily have been bought with cash in any other game world. My last gripe would be the frequent texture pop that accompanies you whenever you load into a new area or even decide to change your characters color. It’s hardly game breaking but it does put a damper on what is a vastly more interesting and visually varied Pandora than what we’ve previously seen.
Save for a few minor quibbles, Borderlands 2 stands as that rare example of a near perfect sequel. The story is better, the environments are more interesting, the gameplay is smoother, the sound design is fantastic and it’s essentially better than the original in every way. If Borderlands was never your cup of tea this game probably wont change your mind and make you into a fan, but if you’re like me and have a soft spot in your shrapnel laced heart for Pandora then…welcome home.